Gene editing and micro-pigs

Recently a Chinese research firm announced that they will soon have a 33 pound micro-pig for sale as pets for a mere $1500. The company originally developed the tiny pig to be used in research. Pigs are often used in medical research because their digestive systems, cardiovascular systems, urinary systems and skin closely resemble those of humans. This little pig’s small size and smaller appetite makes it much cheaper to keep in the lab.

The Chinese micro-pig producers have launched into the pet pig market as the novelty of potbellied pigs has soured. The potbellied pigs, sold as house pets, frequently grew beyond their piglet cuteness to 300 pound, voracious house guests. The company claims the income from selling the pigs as pets will be used to do more research.

These new micro-pigs are the result of a relatively new gene editing process. They are not transgenic animals as all of their genetic material is their own. Their genes, however, have been “edited” to eliminate a growth hormone receptor which keeps them from growing bigger than 30 pounds. While these pigs have not been approved for sale in the United States, that seems to only be a matter of time.

Most of the mini pets available are the result of inbreeding, mutations and possibly even inadequate feeding. The new Chinese micro-pig was developed by directly manipulating their own genes. This gene editing techniques is being promoted as a new–best thing since sliced bread–development. Because it is a gene manipulating process that uses an organism’s own genetic material developers hope that resulting products will have fewer regulatory rules imposed for commercialization.

There are potentially many uses of this kind of genetic modification. Already, besides micro-pigs, researchers have developed a russet potato that doesn’t get sugary when stored at low temperatures. Other researchers hold out the technology as solutions to treating HIV and even sickle cell anemia and other inherited diseases. Proponents promise crop improvements that will feed that world. Chinese researchers have already used the technology to change genes in human embryos in the lab.

Genetic research has great potential. The knowledge gained about how genes work in the last couple of decades is amazing. Still, I suspect, we have much more to learn. Unfortunately, we have rushed into putting our knowledge to work commercially before we understand all the unintended consequences of the applied science.

Proponents of genetic modification claim that inserting genes from one species into another is the same as the traditional breeding and crossbreeding that humans have done for millennia. The genetic problems of many of our domesticated pets and livestock should make us cautious about manipulating genetics in even faster and more extreme ways. All the methods of modifying organisms have had unintended consequences. Some of those consequences are genetic and fortunately many of the most extreme never make it out of the laboratory. Other consequences are economic, ethical and environmental.

When glyphosate tolerant and Bt crops were commercialized, critics of the products warned that the widespread use of these crops would result in insects resistant to Bt toxins and weeds resistant to glyphosate. The developers of these seeds assured farmers and skeptics that all those issues could be controlled by the planting of buffers of non-gmo varieties and appropriate use of rotations and pesticides. Perhaps the direct cause of the growing number of resistant weeds and insects is the lack of understanding of the potential problems by farmers or the overselling of the seeds by the seed and chemical companies. It remains, however, an indirect consequence of the technology itself.

The companies selling new technological fixes for our problems are frustrated by the regulations which slow their ability to bring new products to market. Science is held up as the only valid discipline to be used in developing the rules by which new genetic technologies, pesticides, and medicines are approved.

Science, however, does not exist in a vacuum isolated from politics, ethics, morality and economics. Every new scientific discovery happens in an institution supported by dollars either from the government, foundations or corporations. All research grants come with strings attached. Every treatment for a disease must take into account side effects, quality of life, cost, and the ethics of testing on animals and people. The morality of an application of technology should be debated by others in society beyond the scientists who develop it and the corporations who sell it for profit.

The sale of micro-pigs may be harmless except possibly to the pigs. Finding cures for HIV, sickle cell anemia and other auto immune disorders would be good. Perhaps gene editing techniques will do that. Will we make this kind of treatment of disease available to everyone or just those who can afford it? Don’t we also have to talk about the potential for this technology to create designer babies or to edit embryos to have only one X chromosome and eliminate the conception of baby girls? If we could edit genes to eliminate aggressive behavior, would that be okay? Should we adjust the genetics of babies who might become homosexuals? What about babies with an extra chromosome who live with Down Syndrome? Should they be “fixed?”

Science is important and we should listen to the opinions of scientists. Theirs, however, are not the only voices we should hear.

Copyright © 2015 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains